Never has Byron Jensen taken an assignment so visible with a message so urgent. Never has he scrutinized himself more closely.
“I put myself under the microscope every time I interpret,” he said of his work for Alaska’s deaf and hard of hearing people. “I am liable for their information.”
Jensen is the heart of a small team of American Sign Language interpreters that has become a familiar and expected part of state and city coronavirus news conferences in recent weeks. Each day, they help report the swelling numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, and relay prevention guidelines for people who have no other way to receive the news in real time.
“We don’t want the deaf people to be hearing about it a day or so later,” Jensen said Wednesday. His colleague Elizabeth Davidson translated as he answered questions about his work. “We want them to have the information as timely as everyone else, to have equal access for everybody.”
While their work means a dire situation is unfolding, it may also indicate progress for Alaska’s deaf and hard-of-hearing community and a crucial improvement when matters of health and well-being are at stake, according to advocates.
“With the current situation regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, the information can be overwhelming for some deaf members,” wrote Jennifer Gates, president of the Alaska Deaf Council. “There’s a lot of information in written English on social media or on the news, but it is not ASL-users’ natural language.”
Gates said Alaska has approximately 25,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing residents. ASL is the first language for 2,000-3,000 people, she said.
Jamie Hartung, owner of JD Interpreting Services, an agency that connects independent interpreters to briefings hosted by Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, hopes the changes she’s now seeing will outlast the pandemic.
“I’m hoping this sets a standard for how accessibility should look,” she said.
One month into the coronavirus crisis, the schedule for Jensen and his interpreting colleagues has settled into a routine. But the early days of Alaska’s pandemic response were sometimes frustrating and hectic.
“The very first press conference that was held, they did not have an interpreter. And so the deaf and hard-of-hearing people did not have access to the information,” Hartung said.
Ryann Scortt, an Anchorage-based ASL interpreter for the Alaska Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, said she received concerned messages from deaf community members. She worked with the Alaska Deaf Council to get a transcript of the briefing interpreted and recorded, a process that took days.
“Getting the information three days later -- it’s old news at that point,” Scortt said.
With support from DVR director Duane Mayes, Scortt said she reached out to Hartung for in-person interpreters. It was sometimes a scramble to get a team into position when subsequent news conferences were held on short notice, Hartung said. But her goal was to establish a small team who would specialize in coronavirus briefings. That included Jensen and interpreter Lisa Holton.
“Consistency is very important because of the intensity of the information. Everyday is building on the day before…,” she said. “That’s why you see the same faces in front of the camera, typically.”
Jensen and Holton were joined by interpreter Elizabeth Davidson Wednesday at the Anchorage Office of Emergency Management building. As Berkowitz updated online viewers on the latest numbers of COVID-19-positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths in Anchorage, they translated his words into ASL. That’s not a word-for-word process, Hartung said, but one that involves making the information three-dimensional through hand and body movements and facial expressions.
For deaf people whose primary language is ASL and may have difficulty understanding English, there’s no substitute, Gates wrote in an email.
“They would be ‘the last to know’ and need to ask a friend or relative to explain, or have a friend or relative correct them when they talk about the news and clearly misunderstood it,” said Gates, who is deaf. “It feels like you’re a second-class citizen or overly dependent on others.”
Jensen has carried much of the workload at recent briefings. Because Jensen is deaf, his work is particularly refined and valuable, Hartung said. Since he has a college degree in sign language interpretation, he’s also one of the most qualified in Anchorage, she said.
“We’ve been to school for this. We are professionals. We’re certified,” Hartung said of interpreters who can hear, like herself. “However, it is still our second language.”
The difference is noticeable when Jensen works, Gates said. “The community is very satisfied with his interpreting,” she said.
Jensen is typically in front of the camera for the first half-hour of news conferences. On Wednesday, Davidson, who is able to hear Berkowitz speak, fed signs to Jensen from off camera. Jensen then re-signed it, often using his judgement to improve the communication for a deaf audience. Sometimes he adds a fuller explanation for things he thinks might be confusing.
Holton said Jensen also has the ability to inject a measure of culturally appropriateness that a hearing signer might miss. For example, a hearing signer might translate the governor’s or mayor’s greeting using an informal “hello,” while Jensen might sign it with palms down to indicate that the speaker is in a position of authority and speaking assertively.
While Jensen and Davidson signed, Holten served in a supporting role. Pen and paper in hand, she made notes to prevent the team from missing important details and jot down phrases that might be new and worth revisiting later.
After Jensen signed for about 30 minutes, Holton took his place in front of the camera to let him rest for 15 minutes.
“It’s a heavy mental load,” Holton said.
The interpreters said their team has built chemistry in recent weeks. They regularly show up early and stay late to preview information and discuss how to improve. “I feel like over the last couple of weeks, we’ve found a groove,” Holton said.
But there were lessons along the way.
For starters, some words now commonly used when discussing coronavirus did not have broadly-understood ASL signs until recently. That’s true for “flatten the curve,” “PPE” and “social distancing.” The word “coronavirus” is a new one, too. Now, the ASL sign includes a balled left hand with a splayed and twisting right hand atop it.
Anchorage-based signers had a more localized curveball: how to sign the phrase “hunker down,” Berkowitz’s preferred term for limiting social interaction. Holton said they decided to use the existing sign for “stay.”
Hartung said the team has also learned to try to get key stats and figures ahead of press conferences. Otherwise, it can be difficult to keep up when they’re reported during the livestream broadcast, particularly by Alaska’s briskly-speaking chief medical officer.
“When somebody talks fast, it is always a challenge,” Hartung said.
Jensen said he’s constantly fine-tuning his work, rewatching videos of press conferences and taking feedback from members of Alaska’s deaf community, from whom he gets feedback daily. His goal is to convey information with just the right tone, he said, and he can always do better.
“We need to make sure that we convey the seriousness of what’s going on,” Jensen said. “And every little facial expression or mouth movement, everything that we do, has meaning.”
Gates, the Alaska Deaf Council president, said the inclusion of ASL interpreters at emergency announcements and public health-related news conferences should be a “standard principle.” She’s encouraged by what she has seen in recent years.
“Since the emergency announcements for the 2018 Cook Inlet earthquake, ASL interpreting has been provided more and more regularly,” she said. Gates and the interpreters compliment the Dunleavy and Berkowitz administrations who accommodate them.
“This really is unprecedented to have interpreters at these conferences regularly. It hasn’t happened in the state of Alaska before, and it’s really nationwide right now,” Hartung said.
Holton said she’s noticed a shift since the coronavirus outbreak began.
“I’ve seen, from the first week or so, there was a lot of attention on interpreters. ‘Oh, look at the funny faces…’ Some people took exception to that,” Holton said. “I, on the other hand, was on my couch celebrating the fact that they’re there in the first place. That’s a huge win.”
More recently, Holton noted that, when a technical glitch momentarily disrupted the broadcast of the interpreter on screen recently, comments popped up immediately from people expressing concern for deaf viewers who could no longer follow along.
“I believe that the community has hit (a) milestone...,” Jensen wrote in an email. “We still have many milestones to hit.”
Jensen, 33, first saw interpreting as a career possibility as a student at Boise State University. An ASL interpreter who assisted in one of his classes was lacking in skill, he said. He found himself signing to better explain things to another deaf student in class.
“That was how I really saw how I could help as a deaf interpreter,” Jensen said while Davidson translated. “I could make things clearer and more understandable.”
Jensen, who also works as a teaching assistant with the Alaska School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at East High School, said he plans to continue to be the busiest interpreter for coronavirus news conferences for as long as he can.
“It’s a big responsibility to make sure the information is accurately conveyed,” Jensen said, hours before his second news conference began that day.
“I want to make sure that I’m the right person for the job,” he said.
[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]